Secular Morality: Barfing Up A Moral Landscape

Yes, I’m still here.  I bet you thought that you’d gotten rid of me.  In my last post I referred you to an article on secular morality that a friend of mine had passed on to me after a discussion about the basis for moral judgments.  I began by dispatching the false dichotomy the article leads with in an attempt to establish that morality based in God is no less arbitrary than that based in a secular worldview.  Please read my previous post to understand why this is not the case.

Now, on to the task at hand, which is an attempt to understand how morality can be objective in the context of secular naturalism. The article tries to get going by asking the questions, “How should unbelievers behave? Where does our understanding of morality ultimately come from? How do we know that our standards are correct in a meaningful and universal sense?” These are great questions! How then, do we began to answer these questions? The article continues, “…if we approach the question from a humanistic, scientific stand point, atheists ought to agree that there should be rational standards for arriving at moral conclusions.”

Say what now?

I seem to be being told, that in order to conclude where “oughts” (statements about morality) come from, that we ought to agree there should be rational standards. This is absurd though. I see no reason why atheists ought to agree, unless there is some transcendent atheist herdsman that sets the moral standard for all people. The statement that atheists (or anybody else) “ought” to do anything is the very thing that is in question, and so at the outset this article commits the logical fallacy known as “begging the question“. This circular form of argument gets stuck in an infinite loop that usually goes something like this:

Atheist: We ought to agree there should be rational standards for arriving at moral conclusions.
Me: Doesn’t whether or not there are objective moral conclusions impact whether we “ought” to do anything, like agree on rational standards?
Atheist: No. We can know some things are right and some things are wrong?
Me: How?
Atheist: We ought to agree there should be rational standards for arriving at moral conclusions.

Unfortunately, a claim cannot use its own conclusion to justify itself, and so this article falls on its sword before it ever gets underway, by appealing to a sense of “ought” prior to establishing that such a thing can exist, or where it comes from. The fact of the matter is that either moral principles are universal laws that we discover, like the laws of mathematics or physics, or they’re merely social conventions that we’ve created for ourselves. In the event they are social conventions, there is no “ought” involved. There remains only the opinion based product of myself or my society. In this case, I have no grounds to judge the actions of other people or other societies. If another society believes nirvana is achieved by using babies for skeet shooting, that is their prerogative. I can object on the subjective grounds that I don’t like it because it is mean, but I have no objective standard on which to base my assessment.

In Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape, he lays out a much more thorough case for an objective morality without God. Harris defines his so-called “moral landscape” as, “…real and potential outcomes whose peaks correspond to the heights of potential well-being and whose valleys represent the deepest possible suffering.” Again, from the outset, the case for secular morality lies within the human condition. Though eloquent, Harris’s definition of morality holds water no better than the aforementioned article. The Moral Landscape makes its case using moral language with words like “well-being”, “should”, “right”, and “good”. All of these words are meaningless though, unless something gives them meaning. Harris dodges the problem of question begging by instead relying on the equivocation of these words so that they are synonymous with the promotion of human life. This secular humanism is arbitrary speciesism though. On naturalism I see no objective reason to think protecting human animals is any more right than protecting aardvarks or cockroaches. Surely you can assign subjective rightness to the flourishing of human life, simply on the grounds that you are one of them, but why stop there? Why not use you’re nationalism to promote an ideal society of whatever sub-class of humans you think is superior to others (WWHD)?

Theism presents the solution to this problem though, by recognizing a transcendent moral law giver outside of creation that provides a universal moral law. People seem to nearly universally recognize and affirm that human life is important, but unlike a secular humanist’s worldview, Christianity in particular has objective reasons for elevating humans over aardvarks or cockroaches. God, as the creator of all things, gives mankind special position in the creation. Without a transcendent moral law, all morality is reduced to individual and societal opinions. Sam Harris can use science to tell me that certain brain states equate to unhappiness. However, science is powerless to say in any meaningful sense why I ought not put you in these unhappy brain states.  It is not his science (as he would have you believe), but his philosophy that makes the claim we ought to look out for the well-being of people. This is his opinion…and we simply ought to agree with his moral conclusions.

Just to be clear, I am NOT saying that the atheist cannot be moral, I’m simply saying that on atheism there is no objective grounds on which to base the concept of morality.  In a secular worldview it seems it must be admitted that “oughts” and “ought nots” are no more meaningful than in any other part of the animal kingdom. If we really think that an objective morality exists though, and that things like “human rights” are real things, then we must look outside ourselves to find the source, for it is only something beyond mankind that can apply universally to mankind. Once we identify the source of moral laws and duties outside ourselves, only then can we say with confidence that we ought not eat our babies like guppies do, and this is more than just mere personal opinion or cultural convention!

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How vs Why

The other day I listened to a debate the took place at the University of Manchester back in October between philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig and chemist Peter Atkins. I was listening to this while camping somewhere up in the mountains of the North Cascades. Now leaving aside the obvious question, (what sort of weirdo listens to academic debates while they’re camping?) what really struck me about the interaction between these two is that Dr. Atkins’ empiricism leads him to believe that philosophy is useless, while Dr. Craig asserts that without the necessary assumptions that philosophy gives to science, science would be incapable of telling us anything. It seems the fundamental difference between the philosopher and the pure scientist, is that the scientist only wants to understand “how”, but the philosopher desires to go a step further and understand “why”.

While walking with my girls through the woods yesterday, we came upon one of my favorite native flowers. It’s a little pink/purple orchid called a fairy slipper (calypso bulbosa). I don’t see them very often. They’re easily missed because they’re so tiny, and typically standing alone. You can see one in the photo I took that accompanies this article. If you look at it carefully, you can see why it is called a fairy slipper. It resembles a delicate little shoe. It’s seemingly intricate design is impressive. It’s a little natural work of art. Botanists and biologists probably have all sorts of impressive things to relate to us about how this little flower came to look this way; how it develops and reproduces; how it’s appearance lends to its functionality; etc. What science fails to explain to me, is why. Not why does this flower do anything it does, because they would tell me that it’s appearance is merely part of the mechanics to aid in its survival. The “why” I’m really interested in though, is really a more profound why I think. Why do I find it beautiful?

I don’t think empiricism can adequately answer this question.  Sure Dr. Atkins and his scientific colleagues may be able to tell me some things about the neurochemistry of the brain and how I find it beautiful, but why I find it beautiful, or what beauty even is, seems a deeply philosophical question. I believe there is a lot to be learned about reality, not only through testing and observation which is clearly a valuable epistemological pursuit, but also through self-reflection and metaphysical realities I observe from within my own mind.

Some people, like Dr. Atkins, will say that the pursuit of philosophical knowledge, by those like Dr. Craig, is a worthless one and that nothing can be known that can’t be tested and observed using the scientific method. This is a patently absurd self-defeating statement though, since the statement itself is, in fact, a philosophical one! Until these philosophical naysayers show me the experiments that prove empirically that the scientific method is the only way to knowledge, I’ll be skeptical of their ability to even handle the question of “how” properly, let alone “why”.